Interviewer : Jyothsna Bhavanishankar | Camera : Maran | Text : Jyothsna Bhavanishankar | Coordination : Venkatesh
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Art Director Muthuraj is known for his works in Pazhassi Raja, Irumbu Kottai Murattu Singam and Angadi Theru to name a few. Having completed Shankar’s Nanban, the creative man discusses with Senior Editor Jyothsna Bhavanishankar on his various assignments, challenges and of course the cute innovations he has tried in Nanban and how it was to work with director Shankar. Over to Muthuraj!

How did you get into art direction?

Post my course at College of Arts, I was doing a few freelance assignments. That’s the time I joined Sabu Cyril as his assistant and slowly I became an art director. Of late, I am doing more films in Tamil. I have done around 43 films. In Tamil I have done around 7-8 films.

Can you tell us about the films that you have worked in?

I have done many Malayalam films; Guru being a significant one starring Mohanlal which went to Oscars till the ‘Best of Five’ category. This film fetched me a good name and many awards for art direction. I was involved with Arpudha Theevu, a fantasy film with dwarves and later Devadoodan. Lastly I did Hariharan sir’s Pazhassi Raja which also gave me good name and fame.

My first film in Tamil was Marumalarchi in which we had erected a village set which was required to be set ablaze. CG was not much prevalent then. Due to FEFSI issue, another art director took over that film. After Pazhassi Raja came in, I have started doing Tamil films.

Many people could not make out

that it was Ranganadhan Street

sets in Angadi Theru

I worked in Angadi Theru and it was important that sets should not appear as sets. Many people could not make out that it was Ranganadhan Street sets. We made a set in AVM Colony in Saligramam till 40 feet and further on we extended it through CG. We all worked harder in Angadi Theru as we were keen to bring in a realistic look. During nights, we used to bring all the garbage of Ranganadhan Street in a lorry and the Onyx people used to fight with us thinking that we were the new cleaning agency. This particular set was quite interesting to me.

Then I did Irumbu Kottai Murattu Singam, a fantasy film. I am happy to do fantasy films because it gives a lot of creative freedom as it gives the scope to innovate things. Director Simbu Devan is the pinnacle of creativity. His thoughts would be terrific which gave good fodder to my creativity. In IKMS, more than what we had planned before we went on floors, many things evolved while we were actually shooting. I enjoyed working in IKMS which brought me good name.

Director Simbu Devan is the

pinnacle of creativity

Producer walked past the set

and came back looking for it in

Avan Ivan

Later I joined Bala sir to do Avan Ivan. His films are also very realistic and sets should not be perceived in his works. I erected a set that showed the residential colony of Vishal and Arya. On the first day of the shoot, producer walked past the set and came back looking for it. That’s when Bala sir said that he is after all standing in the set. This was a great achievement for me. It was a great experience working with Bala sir who has an eye for details and would work hard to get it.

I was called to do Ponnar Shankar which was not a historical film as there was no reference to any time period. It was a story that had a mix of history and imagination. There was not any authenticity in it.

There was not any authenticity in

Ponnar Shankar

Now I have done Shankar sir’s Nanban. Shankar as everyone knows is very sincere in his work. He would finalize all the details on table and would never interfere in your work later. He would discuss about the work and would get it approved by the producer. He is very punctual. When he says that he would discuss about a song sequence on a said date and time, even if you happen to meet him before that, he would not discuss then but would do so only on the date and time that was planned earlier. Once the discussions are over, he would not touch upon this subject again. It was great working with Shankar.

The research that goes into period films like Pazhassi Raja

Initially a different art director was fixed for Pazhassi Raja but due to date issues he could not do it and they came to me. As it is a historical film, I needed some time to carry out my research. You will get photographic references for period under last 70 years in the net and beyond that you need to look at book reference. Hence I collected references from libraries in Ernakulam, Trivandrum and other such libraries in Kerala.

You may not get the exact information that you seek out for. You need to study and derive information. For example, there may be a mention of a group called Kurichiyam and their life style and from it we need to draw out information regarding the materials that could have been used in that period.

I brought two of the Kurichiya

tribe as my assistants

The Kurichiyars are the tribals who live in the interior forests of Wayanad. We went to them to understand about the making and usage of arrows, their culture and life style. When they talk about their forefathers, we can roughly assume about the life in those times and use the information. We learnt to make the arrows staying with them and I brought two of them as my assistants. We understood what kind of trees were there in that period and after taking permission from forest authorities brought them in. In that manner, whatever little things that could have existed in that period, we have used them and created the feel.

The most challenging task in Pazhassi Raja

The Panamara Kottai was the toughest. People might think that it is the fort made of palm trees. There is a place in Wayanad called Panamaram which only has one palm tree. Since they camped in that place, it began to be called as Panamara Kottai. We searched for trees called Manchiyam, whose thickness should be more than 6-7 inches and if it was less than this, it would look like Casuarina poles on screen. We needed around 5000 to 6000 such trees. But we were able to muster only around 200 of them. Hence we waited for 5 months and we brought in those trees in lorries. Each truck load can carry around 150 trees. Then you can imagine how many such truck loads we would have utilized.

We had put up a set in a place which is an hour’s travel from Madikeri which is 120 kms from Mysore. When we were shooting in Karnataka we needed the look of Wayanad. Palmyra leaves that are 8-9 feet are very unique to Wayanad and Calicut. You don’t find such trees anymore and I had given the job of hunting out for these trees and bringing them to Madikeri. We did around 13 lorry loads of such Palmyra leaves to Karnataka. At the check post, officials were amused by our shifting of Palmyra leaves.

Here I should mention that producer cooperated very well, otherwise these things could not have been possible. In such a project, you need to have like minded individuals, or else it is difficult to achieve.

How did you do the huge statue in Irumbu Kottai Murattu Singam?

The huge statue in Irumbu Kottai Murattu Singam is a miniature. We did the scaling originally which would be as tall as 2 feet. We did the miniature at 9 feet height. We did the skeleton to the height of the original and marked a place to look up to. Artists will look up to this height and speak. We did mild touch up in CG, gave a little texture which gave an original feel.

The huge statue in Irumbu Kottai

Murattu Singam is a miniature

I travel a lot and when I come across good locales for shoot, I would keep that in mind. I spotted such a location which is just 4-5 hours of travel from Chennai resembling Grand Canyon. Nobody knows about this place which is in Andhra and I took Simbu Devan there. Till he saw the location, he never believed such a place could exist and he heaved a big sigh on reaching there. When we look down from this place, there would be a river running down and you would find rocks of on old world texture. It was an arduous task to get down and then climb again. Around 120 kms from the river, there is a dam and from there, there is one more dam in which there are boat services. We brought the boat through trailer to this dam and we started believing that artists can be brought to the location.

That’s when I told the director that I have plans to put up a set for the huge statue. Director was puzzled as to how I am going to complete the task when it was so difficult even to bring artists. But we somehow managed, put up the set, matched the miniature and completed.

Instead of dismantling the sets after the shoot, are there ways to keep them preserved?

No, we can’t do that. For Irumbu Kottai Murattu Singam, we created the cowboy village set in the Malambuzha dam area during the time when there was no water. Once the rain started, we had to make alternate arrangements; otherwise we are answerable to PWD. The locations that we get for visuals come with many problems. If we are shooting in a place belonging to the producer, we can leave it as such. For a Telugu film, the producer bought 24 acres of land in which we had created a village set and left it as such.

Only Mani Ratnam can try out

different artists for bilinguals

When working in bilinguals, how do you ensure that the local flavor is maintained?

When it comes to fantasy we try to match both the situations. Pazhassi Raja is a story that happens in Kerala, hence no issues. In Guru (not the Mani Ratnam Guru), it was a fantasy flick that was set in Harappa, Mohenchadaro time frame. Generally, when we do bilinguals such issues would come and we would solve it by changing a few items within the frame. Usually artists would be the same (for most parts) in bilinguals; if there were different artists, it would be very expensive for the producer. Only Mani sir can try out different artists for bilinguals.

In Nanban, have you created something different from the original?

We need to adhere to the original for few features like the boy’s discovery etc. But we made the college texture different with brick wall. We made a few changes to suit our flavor. In 3 Idiots, they travelled to Ladakh to shoot climax, for Nanban we went to Dhanushkodi for the climax school sequence because it would be believable. We made a few changes geographically and worked as per that. We retained the scooter of the heroine. I made many small gadgets which you would see in the film like the washing machine with pedal, trolley that would move in the steps, solar cycle, battery scooter, plant watering helmet where you can water the plant just by looking at the plants and controlling the same. I have used many small ideas.

For Nanban we went to

Dhanushkodi for the climax

Shankar has painted lorry, bus,

car and many such vehicles with

Sabu Cyril

Any interesting work in Nanban

Shankar sir wanted to paint an entire train. We discussed many possibilities and you may know that he has combined with Sabu sir and has painted lorry, bus, car and many such vehicles (in other films) and only thing remaining is train. I suggested plane and he was almost hitting me. Rentals for train are very high-5 lakhs for 24 hours and the condition was that we return the train completely washed. If we were to draw, it would take half a day to dry and then it was not viable for shoot after that and return soon. Hence we decided to stick paper and then paste the painting on it. We hired some 250 artists from various states who were well versed in folk drawings and finished the entire job at breakneck speed and returned the train in time.

What are the measures you take for eco conservation while making sets?

The amount of hard work that we put in to create a set, we work more than that to remove the set completely from the place. This is one way to protect the environment from our side. We cannot bring in variation in the materials that we use to create sets. We can only use POP or fiber glass. Otherwise we need to use rocks which are not practically possible.

Tags : Muthuraj, Nanban, Shankar, Angadi Theru, Mani Ratnam
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